Busy schedules, high speaking fees prevent visits from Jessica Williams, Ellen Page

| Senior Editor

Comedian Jessica Williams and actress Ellen Page will not be part of Student Union’s Speaker Series this year, removing the two highest-profile guests from the annual speaker schedule.

In Williams’ absence, Black Anthology will bring Bree Newsome, an activist best known for removing the Confederate flag from its mast outside the South Carolina state capitol building over the summer, to campus in February.

After losing two prominent speakers from their flagship program, Student Union leaders said they plan to reshape the timeline for Speaker Series allocations to better ensure that requested speakers will be able to come to campus.

This is not the first time in recent years that a pair of high-profile cancellations has affected the Speaker Series. In 2011-12, scheduling conflicts prevented politician Al Gore and actress Sofia Vergara from appearing for the Speaker Series.

This year, SU Treasury withdrew the funds it had allotted for Williams and Page after it became clear the school would be unable to find a date or price that worked for the prospective speakers.

When leaders from student group Black Anthology, which had requested funds for Williams, reached out to her agent, they discovered that her asking price was nearly twice as much as the $21,292.48 they had been allocated, Kenneth Sng, SU’s vice president of finance, said.

They spent the next two months planning for a replacement speaker before appealing to Treasury last week to bring Newsome to campus. Treasury voted 8-2, with one abstention, to fund the activist at $9,691.40, just less than half the amount it had allocated for Williams.

Representatives from Black Anthology did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday evening.

Plans for Page were more complicated, as the “Juno” star and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activist was initially slated to give the keynote address at November’s inaugural OWN IT summit, but scheduling conflicts nixed that plan. Further inquiries from Student Involvement and Leadership (SIL) about Page’s availability in the spring semester revealed that it was unlikely Page would be free to speak.

“Obviously it’s disappointing, because we think that she would have been a great contribution to Speaker Series,” senior Claudia Vaughan, co-founder of the student group OWN IT, said. “But at the same time, we’re really excited that we now have the opportunity to go after a bunch of other speakers. We’re researching now multiple options of speakers for the future.”

The group knew scheduling an actress might be difficult, Vaughan added.

“It wasn’t a huge surprise just given the nature of the entertainment industry,” she said. “When you have an actor or an actress whose schedule is changing all the time, there’s really no guarantee until you’re really close to the actual date of the event that that individual may or may not be free.”

At $52,690, Page’s allotted funds were the highest for any speaker this year. Due to her removal from the series and the cheaper cost for Newsome, more than $60,000 was returned to Treasury to fund appeals for speakers or events from Category 1 and 2 groups.

“The funds aren’t going to the student group; the funds are specifically allocated for that speaker,” SU president and senior Jordan Finkelstein said. “So if that speaker is no longer able to come, those funds are taken back to Student Union.”

Even before the two cancellations, SU Executive had been thinking about ways to improve the Speaker Series, Finkelstein said. Specifically, he explained, Exec saw that student groups had difficulty navigating the existing process of contacting agents and securing contracts, wherein students are in charge of planning and programming the event while SIL coordinators work with talent agents on payments.

One suggestion he offered was beginning the search process for the following year near the end of the spring semester, giving student groups the whole summer to investigate the availability of various speakers they were interested in bringing to campus. Then, when Treasury allocates funds in the fall, groups will be more certain that they can actually book their requested speakers.

That’s unlike the traditional timeline, Finkelstein said, in which “that work is expected to all be done in the first three weeks of September, which is kind of an unrealistic thing…Everyone needs a little bit more time to kind of ensure that all the eggs are in line before they go to [Treasury].”

But, Sng cautioned, a potential issue with that plan is that student groups working out details independent of each other could create an uneven schedule, such as last year, when five of the seven Speaker Series events occurred in February.

Instead, any revamping of the Speaker Series timeline should take into account the goal of spreading events throughout the whole year, Sng said. A task force will propose a workable change before the next group of SU Execs takes office in April, he added.

With additional reporting by Noa Yadidi.

Editor’s note: Senior News Editor Emily Schienvar is on executive board of OWN IT. She was not involved in the writing or reporting of this article.

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